Friday, November 21, 2008

Modernity, IR, and the European 16th century (Pt. 1)

N.B.: This post ends abruptly; I intend at some point to write a conclusion of sorts (hence the Part I in the title). Bracketed numbers indicate notes, which are found at the end. This will probably be my last post for this month.

How did the distinctive institutions of the modern world emerge and develop? Historians and sociologists have been chewing on that big question for a long time; the field of International Relations (IR) clearly has no monopoly on it. Still, some of the more interesting work by IR scholars in the past couple of decades has focused on this issue. Much of this work has been Eurocentric, partly because state sovereignty and the world capitalist economy have European roots. The concentration on Europe, and on the West more generally, has been criticized by writers who draw on ‘postcolonial’ scholarship. A passage from a recent article gives the flavor of this criticism:
“That the practices of states produce hierarchies – among peoples, places and states – is obvious. It is less obvious that practices of scholarship are complicit in these processes. Postcolonial scholars show how knowledge practices participate in the production and reproduction of international hierarchy. A common effect of such practices is to marginalize Third World and other subaltern points of view…. Perhaps most generally, IR often takes for granted as background knowledge, and thus truth, distinctions constitutive of sharp divides between spaces problematically referred to as the North and the South, the First and the Third World, or ‘the West and the rest’. These practices make the North Atlantic world central to world history, acknowledging only contingent connections between ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’. The former becomes the space of modernity, agency, knowledge, history, and power. The latter becomes ‘its lack, or other’. The consequences for our misunderstanding of the world are evident, for example, in analyses of the rise of the West to global dominance that overlook the significance of the non-West, of the spread of sovereignty out of Europe and across the planet that ignore the close ties between sovereignty and imperialism, and of a modernity assumed to be Western, obscuring the existence of other modernities as well as the constitutive role of colonialism in ‘Western’ modernity itself.” [1]
There is some merit to this critique. For reasons having mostly to do with the limits of my knowledge, this post focuses on “the West” and therefore opens itself to this kind of criticism. With so many Eurocentric books and articles having already contributed to “the production and reproduction of hierarchy,” however, I doubt that a blog post is going to do much additional damage in this respect.

“Feudal” and “Modern”
The notion of modernity implies, of course, a notion of pre-modernity, which in the European context means the era of medieval Christendom. The textbook picture of Latin Christendom emphasizes, indeed probably overemphasizes, its political complexity. This picture is one of overlapping authorities, often unclear jurisdictions, and “two parallel and connected hierarchies” [2]: one headed by the Pope, the other by the Holy Roman Emperor. The ideological glue that held medieval Europe together was the notion of respublica Christiana, but this idea of the unity of Christendom had to exist alongside the frequent intra-Christian warfare that characterized the Middle Ages. Thus to some extent medieval Europe was marked by “communal discourse and conflictual practices.” [3] The relation of discourse to practice, however, was not one of simple contradiction. Rather, intra-Christian warfare was seen as a regrettable affront to the way things should be, which is one reason papal mediation could at least occasionally terminate conflicts.

At what point does it make sense to begin speaking of “modern” states and “modern” rulers? The answer, not surprisingly, is unclear. The traditional dividing line in IR accounts is 1648, but that marker has been debunked in recent years, although some continue to use it and debates about the Peace of Westphalia doubtless will continue. With respect to an earlier period, Gilmore observes that the clash in the late fifteenth century between Charles the Bold of Burgundy and Louis XI of France “provided historians a specious example of dramatic contrast between the past and the future, between Charles, the representative of a dying chivalric and feudal order, and Louis, the representative of modern politics….” Actually both men, Gilmore argues, “worked within a set of conditions of which feudalism was still the basis. Both pursued a policy of territorial aggrandizement and there is small justification for awarding the title of ‘modern’ to the one who succeeded.” [4] Nonetheless, there were important structural differences between the Burgundian and the French polities, and the title of “modern” has to start being awarded at some point: if not to Louis XI, then perhaps to his sixteenth-century successors Francis I and Henry II. Anyway, a sharp divide between “feudal” and “modern” is misleading. Some “feudal” assumptions and institutions survived into the eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries, and the Holy Roman Empire did not formally go out of existence until 1806. [4a]

The Sixteenth Century
That the sixteenth century was an especially important, indeed crucial, period in the history of the West (and of the world) seems true whether the era is defined conventionally (say, 1500-1618) or as what Braudel and Wallerstein call the “long sixteenth century” (c.1450-c.1640). The following remarks are organized under the headings of politics, economics, and the legitimation of authority. The first two headings cover pretty familiar ground, while the third goes down slightly less well-worn paths, at least for IR types.

Politics: In the sixteenth century a new political form, namely the sovereign territorial state, finally emerged from the womb after a long gestation. As Tilly and Spruyt among others have noted, the flourishing of this form was not inevitable but the result of a complicated mixture and interplay of forces (sociopolitical and economic). [5] Some historians describe the emergent states of the sixteenth century as “composite" states – polities made up of parts having different social, legal, and sometimes religious characteristics, and held together by the person of the ruler. Recognizing that most polities were composites to one degree or another, however, should not obscure the differences between, say, France, which was an embryonic sovereign territorial state, and the Holy Roman Empire, which was not. [Note added 4/09: For more on composite states and a different view from that expressed in the preceding sentence, see Daniel Nexon, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe, Princeton U.P., 2009.]

Religious conflicts were the most obvious cleavages of the period, but not the only ones, and conflicts that seemed religious were sometimes so only on the surface. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the same polity could have different official religions within a short time span. From the 1530s to the 1560s, England went from Protestantism to Catholicism to Protestantism again, with each change bringing persecution. For those who took doctrine seriously, such “shifts in official belief and regulated practice must have been excruciating,” dividing communities and families and, sometimes, an individual psyche. [6] State policy could and did veer from toleration to intolerance and back again, as monarchs sought to harness “the passion unleashed by doctrinal conflict…for their own ends.” [7]

Economics: The period witnessed the development of a Europe-wide economy, a “world-economy” in Wallerstein’s phrase, tied together by a division of labor and patterns of exchange. Trade fueled the growth of a banking and credit system, and in Kennedy’s words, “the very existence of mercantile credit, and then of bills of insurance, pointed to a basic predictability of economic conditions which private traders had hitherto rarely, if ever, enjoyed anywhere in the world.” [8] As major customers of merchants and bankers, the emergent states played important roles in the Europe-wide economy’s functioning. [9] Thus, political fragmentation, sustained by (among other things) the fact that most polities were able to produce or to buy the latest military technologies [10], went hand in hand with economic vitality. Territorial consolidation occurred, but not on such a scale as to threaten to replace multiple units with one big entity. In this sense, the geopolitical storyline of the period is “the failure of empire” [11], which enabled the growth of the Europe-wide economy. (Of course, extraction of bullion, sugar, etc. from colonies in the Americas and elsewhere also made this to some extent an extra-European economy.)

The human cost of economic change, both in Europe and beyond, was considerable. In England for instance, rural dislocation “set thousands of beggars wandering the roads” and pushed other people “into the cities and boroughs where they were newly subject to the calamities of depression and urban unemployment.” [12] Crime increased; the suburbs of London were “no other but dark dens for adulterers, thieves, murderers and every mischief worker,” one observer wrote in 1591. [13] Famines and epidemics were regular occurrences.

Legitimation of authority: As Reus-Smit observes, “Legitimacy…is the necessary prerequisite for stable political authority, and investing European monarchs with supreme political authority was, in essence, a process of legitimation.” [14]

In this connection, consider two of the peaks of sixteenth-century literary achievement: Machiavelli’s The Prince (written 1513, published 1532), and the works of Shakespeare (b.1564-d.1616). Close observers of political power and how it is acquired and wielded, Machiavelli and Shakespeare both treat politics as basically a secular realm, with its own set of rules. One scholar remarks that Shakespeare is “the only dramatist who rises to the level of Machiavelli in elaborating all the consequences of the separation of political praxis from moral evaluation.” [15] Another observes that the plays Henry IV (Pts. 1 and 2) and Henry V “confirm the Machiavellian hypothesis that princely power originates in force and fraud even as they draw their audiences toward an acceptance of that power.” [16]

Both Machiavelli and Shakespeare saw that, in an age when rulers had to embody and attempt to unify diverse, “composite” realms, the tools of display and theatricality were central to the legitimation of authority. Machiavelli advised rulers to “keep the people entertained with feasts and spectacles” at “appropriate times of the year.” [17] More importantly, he wrote: “What will make [a ruler] despised is being considered inconstant, frivolous, effeminate, pusillanimous and irresolute: a ruler must avoid contempt as if it were a reef. He should contrive that his actions should display grandeur, courage, seriousness and strength….” [18] Note that “grandeur,” the quality with the strongest link to theatricality, is listed first.

At age eleven, Shakespeare might have seen and been struck by the pomp and display surrounding Elizabeth I on one of her spectacular royal “progresses” through the realm (specifically her 1575 visit to the castle of her favorite the Earl of Leicester). As Greenblatt writes, Elizabeth was “the supreme mistress of these occasions, at once thrilling and terrifying those who encountered her,” and if the young Shakespeare had caught a glimpse of her on this occasion, “arrayed in one of her famously elaborate dresses, carried in a litter on the shoulders of guards specially picked for their good looks, accompanied by her gorgeously arrayed courtiers, he would in effect have witnessed the greatest theatrical spectacle of the age.” [19] Elizabeth was not the only monarch who traveled all over a realm; for example, the young king of France, Charles IX, accompanied by his mother Catherine de Medici and a huge entourage, began a long “tour of France” in 1564 [20] -- the year, incidentally, of Shakespeare’s birth.

Shakespeare’s grasp of the charismatic, theatrical aspects of authority is memorably expressed, among other places, in Henry IV’s rebuke of Prince Hal (1 Henry IV III.ii), in which the father upbraids his son for keeping bad company and becoming too familiar with his future subjects. The trick, Hal is told, is to keep a certain distance and interact with the crowd mainly on well-scripted ceremonial occasions: “Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,/ My presence, like a robe pontifical,/ Ne’er seen but wond’red at; and so my state [i.e. pomp],/ Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast/ And won by rareness such solemnity.” For both Shakespeare (at least in these lines) and Machiavelli, too much familiarity with one’s subjects diminishes the ruler’s aura of specialness and separateness, and once that goes, the prince becomes easier prey for domestic conspirators. Ceremony and spectacle help preserve distance and inspire awe; theatricality was thus bound up with the creation and maintenance of legitimate authority.

This authority, however, was fragile, and monarchs’ difficulty in getting their decisions implemented was a source of anxiety for them. One response was to micromanage (as we would now put it), which is basically what Philip II of Spain did. Philip faced nearly insuperable problems in trying to deal with a large empire, but his style of rule probably made the problems even more intractable than they otherwise would have been. Rulers who were more willing to delegate generally fared somewhat better.

Dates and places of publication have been omitted.

1. M. Laffey and J. Weldes, “Decolonizing the Cuban Missile Crisis,” International Studies Quarterly 52:3, pp. 555-577 (quotations from pp. 556, 558).

2. R. Jackson and G. Sørensen, Introduction to International Relations, 2/e, p.13.

3. M. Fischer, “Feudal Europe, 800-1300: Communal Discourse and Conflictual Practices,” International Organization 46:2, pp. 427-466.

4. M. Gilmore, The World of Humanism 1453-1517, p. 81.

4a. In The International Political System, F.S. Northedge dealt with the issue of dating the modern state system's origin by splitting the question in two: he placed the emergence of "the secular principle," i.e. reason of state, in the sixteenth century, and "the fragmentation principle," i.e. the waning of allegiance to a united Christendom, "perhaps as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century." (p. 55)

5. C. Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States; H. Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors.

6. S. Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, p. 94.

7. A. Marx, Faith in Nation, p. 27.

8. P. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p.19 (italics omitted).

9. I. Wallerstein, The Modern World-System vol.1, p.133.

10. Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, pp. 21-22.

11. Wallerstein, Modern World-System I, ch. 4.

12. M. Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, p. 201.

13. Ibid.

14. C. Reus-Smit, The Moral Purpose of the State, p. 93.

15. F. Moretti, quoted in S. Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 23.

16. Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 65.

17. N. Machiavelli, The Prince (Q. Skinner and R. Price, eds.), ch. 21.

18. Ibid., ch. 19. A different translator (Mansfield) renders this as “greatness, spiritedness, gravity, and strength,” a third (Ricci) as “grandeur, spirit, gravity, and fortitude.”

19. Greenblatt, Will in the World, pp. 42, 45-46.

20. E. Le Roy Ladurie, The Royal French State 1460-1610, pp. 177-180; J. Boutier et al., Un tour de France royal: Le voyage de Charles IX (1564-1566); J.E. Neale, The Age of Catherine de Medici.


bro said...

Quite a post. I found the comments on The Bard especially interesting. One thought: what does it mean that a playwright could already see through and parody these mechanisms of display? That they were in fact not so new? Or that Shakespeare was a genius (as we already know)? Or both? And what about the fact that Henry IV ruled England in the early 15th century (as Wikipedia tells me)? Is Shakespeare just projecting contemporaneous issues back onto him, or is there some real history in what he is doing?

LFC said...

Well, all or almost all of Shakespeare's history plays have *some* historical basis, but there's also a great deal of 'contemporaneous projection' going on.

I'm not sure I would use the word parody here, but on your broader point, I think that mechanisms of display themselves are not new in this period. You can probably find rulers indulging in spectacle and display from millennia ago. What's new-ish, arguably, is rulers whose 'objective'/material basis of power is quite fragile using display as a conscious tool of legitimation and state-building. I'm sure one can also find examples of that earlier, but this period seems to have seen more emphasis on it. Recall for instance Burckhardt's reference to the 'state as a work of art' in his classic book on the Renaissance; this may be relevant here. I think I may have read some of it once a long time ago, but unfortunately remember nothing of it.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this post. Thank you.

LFC said...

Thanks, glad you liked it. -- L.